I pulled the book out of the library stacks drawn by its unusual title, and then the cover with the tiny red shoes. What could Balzac have to do with a little Chinese seamstress? I vaguely remember hearing about the Cultural Revolution during the days of Mao Zedong* but I was quite young then. Too young to have much interest or understanding of what was happening on the other side of the planet to many children the same age I was. This novel educated me.
In 1968 Mao closed all the schools – elementary, high schools and universities – dictating that “young intellectuals” be sent to the countryside to be “re-educated by the poor peasants” presumably to create a great leveling. Books were banned and burned. Anything having a whiff of Western to it, or anyone, was denounced. Academics, writers, artists, any professionals were punished and sent off to labor camps to be “re-educated.” Multitudes did not physically survive and many considered themselves a lost generation.
This is a coming of age story in a special setting under difficult circumstances. It’s about what happens when norms are stripped away. When suddenly families are forcibly separated… elements of society previously valued devalued…control wrought by fear…what arises as a result…and the ways in which humans hang onto a piece of themselves and seek to thrive.
The book opens with the unnamed narrator and his best friend Luo having already made the torturous two-day climb on a rugged path up a mountain known as the Phoenix of the Sky to its summit where they were assigned to the headman’s keeping in the poorest village of all. Their lodging was on stilts, a pig sty directly underneath, with little to no protection from the elements. The narrator’s parents were doctors. Luo’s father was a dentist who wasn’t wise enough to keep the fact to himself that he’d fitted Mao with new teeth. The boys were hardly intellectuals, having only finished middle school. Daily the boys were forced to carry buckets of liquid feces on their backs, sloshing as they climbed up the mountain to the fields where it would be used as fertilizer. By the end they’d be soaked with the contents only to begin again. Later they had to work underground for two months in mines that were little used.
In the back-breaking monotony of their days they retained some spirit – subterfuge to trick the headman, have some fun, fall in love, and maintain a semblance of control over their lives where they had little. When the boys arrived in the village, they’d brought two forbidden items. The narrator brought a violin in its case. Luo brought a wind-up alarm clock that contained a rooster pecking the clock’s floor as the minutes ticked away.
Of course, the violin and case were immediately detected and passed around to all those assembled. It was shaken, pounded, its strings nearly broken. The headman declared it a bourgeois toy and started to burn it when Luo stated, with an air of authority, that it was a musical instrument. And his friend the narrator was a fine musician. The narrator, nearly choking, started to play Mozart and Luo said the title of the piece was Mozart Is Thinking of Chairman Mao. Smiles all around.
The headman was fascinated by the alarm clock, never having seen one…especially with a rooster pecking out the time, to the point he’d carry it around and look at it constantly. The boys were able to retain it. One morning when they couldn’t face those buckets that early, Luo turned back the clock by an hour and went back to sleep. The headman was none the wiser. When they wanted to have an early day, they’d turn it forward. Finally, they had no idea what time it was. The headman went by the clock.
But what is the connection between Balzac and the little Chinese seamstress? The boys discovered some forbidden Western classics, translated into Chinese, by Balzac, Dumas and others, hidden in a locked suitcase belonging to another “intellectual” boy undergoing re-education in another village. This, about the same time they met the old tailor in a far village whose granddaughter was beautiful beyond perfection. She was illiterate – as were all the villagers – but hungry for the education books can bring.
There are many levels to this thin novel. It educated me in an area where I knew nothing. The author-filmmaker Dai Sijie also made it into a movie. You can see it in its entirety with English subtitles on You Tube. I suggest reading the book first and then watch the film. The book contains a lot that I would have missed if I’d only seen the film. The cinematography is stunning, and the film contains an epilogue not in the book, closing an open loop. One poignant that brought back my own memories, making me feel nostalgic.
This story takes on another significance considering it’s autobiographic. Dai Sijie was re-educated himself between 1971-1974. The book was his first and became an immediate bestseller and prizewinner in France at its release. Rights were later sold in nineteen countries.
*Commonly referred to as Mao Tse-tung, he is also known as Mao Zedong and referred to that way in this book.